When You Can’t Claim It, But You Can’t Escape It
Defining Brown Identity
“What are you?” a strange man asked after approaching me in a bar without so much as offering me a drink. This question was asked when I went to bars, back when I answered as if I were an automated doll that randomly repeats one of three statements upon having its plastic palm squeezed, back when the most concrete thing I knew about my ancestry—the only information that mattered—was that in my brown body coursed German blood.
The absence of genealogical information poses a great challenge to diasporic people and this dilemma makes us susceptible to manipulation. What I understand now about my identity has largely been discovered in recent years. Growing up, two words offered me clues: my German last name, Hoppe, and the term mestizo. Examining my own features, “mestizo”—a caste label used by Spanish colonizers to classify the children born of Spanish and Indigenous peoples—made some sense, though no one could tell me from which Indigenous peoples our families descended.
I knew there had to be much more to the story.
What has been recorded is that my great-grandfather on my father’s side migrated to Ecuador from Germany and took an Afro-Indigenous woman as his wife. I say “took” because I can’t imagine there having been much of a choice for her. By my calculations, this pairing would have occurred during el blanqueamiento, a post-colonial campaign to produce a “progressive mixture” of people by attracting European immigrants to Latin America—a calculated government-led strategy to disappear African and Indigenous civilizations from the land mass entirely.
“Esta sí es Hoppe,” my paternal grandmother, Benedicta, said when my sister, Karla, was born. She based her approval on the baby’s fair skin tone, expressing relief that Karla had not taken after our mother, Cilia, whose flesh shared the same coppery hue as Benedicta’s, a skin color she despised. Though Benedicta died before ever cradling me, it was made clear that she would have been as disapproving of my looks as she was of my mother’s.
To catalog their colonization of the Americas, the Spanish developed the casta system, a supposed taxonomy of admixtures, and centuries later my family continued to use this colonial vernacular to socialize me. “Negra! No te pongas muy prieta,” my maternal grandmother, Beatriz, always said, singling me out among my sisters and cousins—shooing me out of the sun and admonishing me to protect my skin from getting any darker.
The term “negrita,” which roughly translates to mean “little Black girl,” was a nickname I shared with my mother and for that reason, it was dear to me. Though my father explained it as “cariño,” I understood that it was weaponized by my father’s “whiter” side to impose a racial hierarchy within our families. I knew, because of the language my family imposed upon me, that I was on the dark side.
“It is true that the use of ‘negrita/negrito’ to refer lovingly or kindly to one another is widespread among Latinxs, regardless of race or physical appearance,” Hilda Lloréns a cultural anthropologist and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Rhode Island told the San Diego Union Tribune. “It is often claimed that the tone of voice of the person speaking it reveals the intention of usage, but just because something is widespread doesn’t make it acceptable.”
“That affection does not in any way mitigate how it is racially problematic,” added Tanya Katerí Hernández, Archibald R. Murray professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, and author of numerous books, including On Latino Anti-Black Bias: ‘Racial Innocence’ and The Struggle for Equality. “The term has its origins in the colonial slave societies of Latin America and the Caribbean.”
“Are you Black?” my first crush, a white boy, asked me as we played together in the sandbox at school, no older than kindergarten age. I wasn’t sure. I thought of my nickname “negrita” but I didn’t know how to translate the meaning of it—how to explain to someone blessed with the privilege of universality that I’m the darkest in my family or why it seemed perfectly natural to be identified by my pigmentation. When I couldn’t answer, he ran away from me. My parents, angry after hearing about the incident, told me I was not Black, punto.
“Brownness is not white, and it is not black either,” wrote José Esteban Muñoz in his seminal essay Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position, “yet it does not simply sit midway between them.” While I could not claim either as my identity, being the sole brown body in a school of white children clarified that what brownness shared with Blackness is that it can never be white(ness).
“Honduras, is that in Central America or South,” my teachers would ask me in front of the class—the makeup of my identity, father from Ecuador, mother from Honduras, held no relevance in the white suburbs where I grew up. In the US, this complexity is choked by abbreviating my family’s whole, unique and nuanced ethnicities along with more than 30 other nationalities using one label: “Hispanic.”
I witnessed this category embolden contemporary colonialists in my family eager to seize on the perception of brownness as proximal to whiteness but when I searched my memory for the moment when my crisis of racial awareness began, the wheel came to a stop in the sandbox with that white boy. His was my first white rejection. This story is one that I have told myself and others since I left the predominantly white town where I grew up, a place where whiteness was the air I breathed—a toxic atmosphere for a young brown girl that triggered a coming of age largely navigated in a fugue-like state.
I must, however, unfix this story of inception because that day was hardly the first time. The limbs of white supremacy had been working in tandem—from outside and within Latinidad—all my life. Unfortunately, I did not see these limbs as belonging to the same enemy. The experience of being the only brown girl within the borders of my white hometown so demoralized me that when I cast my attention towards the propaganda of Latinidad all I heard was the onomatopoeia of “bidi bidi bom bom.” I couldn’t discern the drumbeat of white supremacy.
Dominant media images of US Latinx mirrored the parents picking up my white peers from school everyday. All I ever saw splashed across the screen of my father’s nightly news programming on Univision was blonde hair, beige skin tones and brightly colored bodycon dresses—the reporters were white but, you know, spicy. Nearly every Latinx family I knew watched Cristina Saralegui daily, the Spanish-speaking, Oprah-aspiring talk show host followed by a telenovela starring Thalia, a blonde beauty whom I loved because she reminded me of my favorite Disney princess, Sleeping Beauty. If I ever saw characters that looked like me, whether on Spanish-or English-language television, they were there to represent the help. They served as otherized foils against which to contrast the epitome of white beauty.
The hegemony of white Latinx and the erasure of Indigenous and African people has had deep ramifications throughout Latin America and among US Latinx—consequences that extend beyond television and film representation but which are certainly interconnected. Professor Hernandez described the “pigmentocracy” of Latin America as “the ways in which there is a social hierarchy that is arrayed from light to dark, with light being places with the most economic success, at greatest access to socioeconomic opportunity and darker spheres with less.” She adds that “the only additional nuance in [the pigmentocracy] is that you [may] have light skin but if you have African features or African hair texture then that lowers your currency.”
Mestizos, sensing the precarity of brownness, a condition born of destruction, violent colonization and systematic rape, are often recruited to wave the flag of la patria. As part of this political bargain, we must deny aspects of our racial identities for a piece of the white supremacist pie.
“The development of [Muñoz’s] thinking on Black and brown life in tandem reminds us that a sense of brown should not — must not — attempt to supplant, resolve, or transcend the Black/white terms of American racism,” Roy Pérez, an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California San Diego wrote of the late theorist’s work in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The brown commons are only worth mapping — are perhaps only possible — if the work shoulders a critique of latinidad itself, deconstructing Latinx aspirational whiteness (what we mean when we say “Hispanic”), and enabling conspiratorial alignment with and for Black life. In other words, brown can never leave Black behind.”
As gente mixta, the primary purpose we, the racially mixed, served was to demonstrate how near or far we were to the most ostracized: Black and Indigenous people. “¿La peinaste?” my aunt always asked my mother, running her fingernails through my unruly curls. “Tiene el pelo todo musuco!”
We used racist terms as commonly as we used sazon to season our every meal. We swallowed them just as unwittingly. Everyone participated in the denial and denigration of our Afro ancestral roots and prescribed solutions to obscure my presenting features. Like a pinball, my racialized personhood bounced from one set of binaries to another—never finding repose in a brown identity of its own.
I absolutely have African ancestors but I am not a Black woman. I am a descendant of Indigenous peoples but I cannot claim their experience. The family lore of German ancestors and the racial ambiguity of my appearance provided some privileges but the relentless demand to anchor my ancestry according to precise geographic coordinates only makes the holes in my origin story all the more gaping. Once I became able to examine the triptych of my ancestral lines critically, what came into focus was not a masterpiece. I found myself gazing into a void.
Recently, as I scrolled my Instagram feed past midnight, hoping to lull myself to sleep, I came upon a post by a young Catracha, a Honduran like me, who wrote that the Lenca people from whom her family descends are defending their land from multinational development projects. As I read the call to action, all I could think about was waking up my mother to ask if we, too, descend from Lenca people. I tossed and turned in the clammy sheets of my lifelong lament—desperate for information and envious of a stranger half my age with double the intel.
But I restrained myself and saved my question for my visit the next day. My mother responded without her usual defensiveness. She’d recently asked her mother Beatriz to tell her about her childhood, their past, their ancestral roots, but all she offered were vague platitudes. “Todo lindo,” Beatriz had lied, describing the father who’d abandoned her by only one detail, “El nombre Turcios es Español,” proof that within her brown body coursed Spanish blood.
The last time I saw one of my friends I told her the story of my first mistaken identity—the boy, the sandbox, the question. “Are you Black?” she repeated, eagerly performing incredulity extending her white arm to compare it with my brown one, “I would never think you were Black!”
When your identity can be easily broken apart, anyone can take a piece. I longed to be treated as whole. But how much belonging would be offered if I staked my claim, I wondered? If I wait for absolutes I’ll continue to feel alone—a posture Muñoz explored further in his latest book The Sense of Brown published posthumously in October.
Last month I interviewed for a job via Zoom. The sun shines brightly into the north-facing window where my computer sits, which can bleach the pigment of my skin, bathing me in white light on camera. My interviewee, the young head of a burgeoning startup, a German immigrant to New York, introduced himself.
“I’m German too,” I said with a smile, interrupting him with the usual bit I use to soften the curiosity of whites.
“German?” he replied—his confusion I recognized but the repellence, this was new. “I thought you were Latina?” he asked. “We’re really hoping to get the perspective of a woman of color.”
We spent an hour online together that day—long enough for me to cater to the white assumption that brownness is the sum of all parts and, therefore, an asset. After our conversation he sent me a written test which I thought I’d aced, and he even asked me to meet in person for a walk. Though it was freezing outside and risky during a pandemic, I said yes. He told me the team, mostly white and mostly male, would soon be hiring a Black woman for the most visible position at the small company.
I never heard from him after that day. And I didn’t follow-up. Guess I didn’t get the job.
From childhood I was forced to adjust to white institutions, subscribing to their standards of beauty, language, and comportment though they continued to reject me throughout my life. The “affective difference” of the Latinx ethnicity explained by Muñoz or a “feeling brown” imposed by the white majority poisoned my potential, robbing me of the exploration of my personhood, my brownness.
Home was my refuge. Home was where I could sense brown—where I could hear it in the boleros romanticos my father would sing a capella around the house, where I saw it in the innate touch my sister had playing fútbol, where I could taste it in the subtle flavors of the soupy quisado my father made and the stewy quisado my mother cooked—a lifelong rivalry I refuse to referee.
Personal memory could never satisfy 60 million people but it is where we commune. It is where we share what kept us upright, what made us orgullosos—the ways we learned to be rather than be defined.
At this intersection is where I stopped waiting to be chosen.
Jessica Hoppe is a first-generation Honduran-Ecuadorian writer. Her work has appeared on ABC News, The New York Times, Vogue, Paper Magazine, GEN mag, and elsewhere. She is working on her first book, lives in New York City with her partner, and still visits her family in New Jersey every Sunday.